My ridiculous obsession with the Food Network and its competition shows ("Chopped," "Worst Cooks in America," et al) has made me reflect on all the food-based horror films that have been made, and which ones were the most toothsome.
Surely the granddaddy of them all is Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman's 1963 Blood Feast, which is more deservedly famous for being the first splatter film. It made tons of money and played the drive-in circuit for years.
The plot is simple. Egyptian caterer Fuad Ramses (the hilariously strange Mal Arnold) offers to cater a young girl's engagement party with the intention of bringing an ancient goddess back to life.
To achieve his goal, he runs around town collecting body parts from young women to "rebuild" his goddess. Legs are cut off, eyes are gouged, tongues are pulled out by the root. All the effects are crude, but the mere fact that someone had the audacity to let the blood flow to such an extent in 1963 was an accomplishment in itself. And the Coral Gables-based cosmetic company that formulated the fake blood was called Barfred Cosmetics (an amalgamation of the husband and wife owners' first names) and would ever after be known as the manufacturers of barf-red blood.
Lewis and Friedman had already run through the dying days of the "nudie cuties" (nudist colony films in which womens' breasts and buttocks could legally be shown) and they realized they needed to take it to the next level. They thought, "How about dismembered bodies with gushers of blood?" and the drive-in crowd went absolutely wild. The film played for years and years and made a bundle.
Blood Feast, and others in the Lewis/Friedman pantheon, greatly influenced cult filmmaker John Waters. In his book Shock Value he wrote: "I discovered [Lewis'] films at my local drive-in, and when I saw teenage couples hopping from their cars to vomit, I knew I had found a director after my own heart..." Now there's not actually any consumption of questionable food or cannibalism in this movie, but its importance in the genre must be acknowledged. Waters himself opened his Desperate Living (1977) with a nauseating sequence showing a woman demurely cutting up a cooked rat and consuming it in small bites (offscreen, thank God).
Now let's munch on...
Another epoch-maker and much more fitting in the queasy realm of disturbing barbecue and cannibalism is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Tobe Hooper's micro-budget drive-in classic. There's a lot of implied, nausea-inducing food preparation (courtesy of the mute, scary Leatherface), but the film has the reputation of being a nonstop bloody gorefest. That's simply not true.
What gives TCSM its power is what is suggested—viewers get just enough visceral information to upset them, and then their imaginations do the rest. That and the nauseating art direction inside the crazy family's house (bones and feathers everywhere, chickens in cages), trigger the gag reflex much more effectively than acres of fake blood ever could. Besides, the smell of the real meat and offal on the set made the actors sicker still!
To me, the most upsetting scene occurs when the hitchhiking son (Edwin Neal) describes to the young travelers who've picked him up how he enjoyed working at the local slaughterhouse and using an airgun to kill the beef. His monologue is accompanied by close-ups of bovine victims rolling their eyes in terror. By the time he pulls out his knife to slice open his own palm, Hooper has achieved his goal—the audience is nauseated and on edge, and will remain so for the rest of the film.
I have a super 8mm sound print of this feature that I'm pretty sure is a pirated knock-off of a well-used drive-in print, and for my money it's the best way to see the film. The colors are garish, almost melting off the screen, and it actually increases the anxiety level to watch it this way. It evokes those scary 1970s emotions when things were out of control—like watching authentic home movies made by insane cannibals!
Now here's a picture that is not all about food, but it contains one singularly memorable foodie scene...Douglas Hickox's exquisite Theatre of Blood (1973), starring the great Vincent Price, firing on all four campy cylinders.
He plays Edward Lionheart, a hambone stage actor who fakes his own death in order to "come back" and exact his revenge on all the snobby theatrical critics who've ridiculed him throughout his career and denied him a Lifetime Achievement Award.
One by one, he knocks the critics off in Abominable Dr. Phibes style. Ironically, real critics of the era turned up their noses at this film because they considered it a blatant ripoff of his earlier hit. Time has been kind to Theatre of Blood, though, and it's now possible to enjoy it on its own merits. Rated R, it's much sicker than the PG-rated Phibes.
Anyway, the food scene. One of Lionheart's targets is the effeminate Meredith Merridew (Robert Morley from The African Queen) who thinks he's guesting on a TV cooking show and ends up being force-fed delicious chunks of his twin toy poodles a la "Titus Andronicus." The close-up shots of the creamy pieces of meat being pushed down his gullet are...well...sickening.
It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent's fritters! Kevin Connor's 1980 Motel Hell came so far out of left field that it took a decade or so for people to say, "Oh, yeah! It's supposed to be funny!"
It didn't take me that long. A knowing, insane parody of movies like Texas Chainsaw, it features erstwhile Western movie star Rory Calhoun as Farmer Vincent and Nancy Parsons (who looks like she'd be right at home in a Warhol or Waters film) as his wife.
Together, they waylay unsuspecting travelers and bury them up to their necks in their garden (slitting their vocal cords to render them mute) and keep them underground until their flesh is nice and tender...and ready to serve. I don't know if it started the "funny cannibalism" genre, but it certainly helped it along. It's interesting to note that at this same time the cannibal vomitorium films were making their mark in Italy...and on 42nd Street.
Human flesh consumption hit the arthouse most memorably in Peter Greenaway's 1989 The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. I'd seen Greenaway's earlier Draughtsman's Contract, but I wasn't prepared for this challenging, super-theatrical film that alternates sumptuous, color-coded restaurant tableaux with scenes of the lovers screwing amongst rotten meat. And when the gangster husband kills the wife's (Helen Mirren) lover, she has the body cooked and forces him to eat it.
Later, Greenaway would turn Ewan McGregor into a book made of skin in the equally challenging The Pillow Book (1996).
In 1999, director Antonia Bird made Ravenous with Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), which I thought would be a pretty grueling film about an isolated group of soldiers resorting to cannibalism. Alas, although they do refer to it after a time, it's much more of a talkfest. It had one of those dishonest marketing campaigns that made it look like a horror film instead of an art film, which is what it was.
And in 2002, Lewis finally released Blood Feast II: All U Can Eat direct to DVD, which I haven't seen. Waters is on board as a pedophile priest (of course!). I'm kind of scared to watch it, because I don't want to be disappointed by another old timer who's trying too hard to make a "camp" classic, which can only happen organically, of course. You can't push it.
Now let's close the circle. Food Network's own Iron Chef Mario Batali has a role in Bitter Feast, a straight-to-DVD film that Salon's Bob Calhoun gives props to. I haven't seen it yet either, but I really intend to take a bite of this crudite.
James LeGros (of Drugstore Cowboy and tons of other independent films) stars as Peter Gray, a TV chef who is pissed off at snippy food blogger JT Franks (Blair Witch Project's Joshua Leonard) who is ruining his career. Gray kidnaps Franks and holds him hostage in his remote home in the woods, presenting him with an escalating series of cooking challenges in order to stay alive. Chopped, anyone?
The contents of your mystery basket are: human brains, gullets and popcorn! You have 30 minutes to make your appetizer!